Julia Chou

On Finding Solace From an Existential Crisis

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation

I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived

-- Henry David Thoreau

These two of Thoreau’s most famous quotes from Walden were the words that knocked me free from the clutches of an arrogant self-assuredness I hadn’t known possessed me in my sophomore year of college. In its place, I felt the creeping numbness of a slow existential dread. For most people, college is a time of self-exploration and self-discovery, a chance to test the limits of your own capacity and establish the foundations of your career. As for myself, I took to heart that very last goal to the exclusion of all others. I was going to graduate with a degree in Computer Science, snag a lucrative job in Silicon Valley, work for a few decades, save up money, and finally retire to an idyllic life squirreled away in a cabin in the woods where I would write the rest of my days away.

I was struggling at the time, pouring a lot of my energy into balancing three jobs alongside the study of a subject that did not come intuitively to me, to say the least. During my sophomore year, I decided to take a literature course with an amazing professor who introduced me to the works of Thoreau, resulting in a dramatic shift in my perspective. Suddenly, everything I was doing seemed like an endless and meaningless toil. I realized that this future I was so single-mindedly pursuing was only a vague specter and I had no idea if it was going to be what I wanted when I got it. What were the things that were going to be important to me when I woke up some 40 years down the road? When it came time for me to die, was I going to discover that I had never truly lived?

It wasn’t so much that choosing a career path based primarily on the money-making potential is inherently wrong, it was the realization that I had made that commitment without much deliberation or forethought whatsoever as to what else in my life I wanted to achieve and what I would be sacrificing in order to pursue this. I knew that my natural affinity gravitated towards literature and the art of language and story more so than hard science and engineering, but I was afraid that the opportunity cost of investing any of my time and energy towards nurturing those interests would be my chance to break into the realm of software engineering and a life free from financial destitution.

This crisis of identity fed into a larger, more general crisis of existentialism itself. After all, how could I decide what meaning I wanted to add to the world if I didn’t even have a proper understanding of myself and my own values and beliefs?

At the time, I sought to find some answers in Albert Camus' work exploring a concept he referred to as “absurdity,” that is, the act of trying to seek meaning in a meaningless world. Camus' spin on the subject is that any attempt to shape the chaos of the world into some form of sense is futile, and he presents the Greek mythological character Sisyphus as the ideal characterization of the struggle with absurdity. Sisyphus is a man who is doomed in the afterlife to an eternal cycle of pushing a boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it roll back down again, and Camus uses his labor to exemplify the toils of mankind at large. It is only on Sisyphus' journey back down the mountain that he has full agency. He accepts the inevitable futility of his efforts and decides to embrace it regardless, and in that moment, he has complete mastery of his fate.

Reading through these concepts helped put my mind at ease just a little. I imagined that all I had to do was accept that anything I did in life was eventually meaningless, so I might as well drive my initial agenda forward. I pushed aside my thoughts in order to focus on making my engineering career a priority. The next few years witnessed me graduating with my Computer Science degree, moving to San Francisco, and finding work as a software engineer at a tech startup. On the surface, it appeared that I was well on track to achieve my initial dreams and aspirations, but a vague, uncomfortable feeling of malaise persisted through my everyday life.

As it goes, a recent loss of a very important connection to me, along with its associated hopes, dreams, and expectations, unearthed all these underlying insecurities and sent me reeling deeper into an identity crisis than I have ever been. It’s inevitable that one experiences several major losses throughout their lifetime, but the worst ones are the ones that completely blindside you and leave you with a lingering sense of incompletion, of missed opportunity. You become helplessly mired in thoughts of how you could have done things differently, done more, or just been better.

Everything around me suddenly seemed to take on a new sense of gravity, and I found myself questioning and reevaluating every single aspect of my life. Does every relationship, every material possession, every belief, every value, every motivation, and every goal I have truly embody who I am, what matters to me, and what kind of life I really want to lead?

I was completely swept away in a maelstrom of despair, self-inadequacy, and doubt, and almost overnight, my emotional well-being completed a beautiful and transcendent metamorphosis into a flaming pile of garbage. There has always been a slight disconnect between how I feel and what I think, such as when I feel irritated by having to sit in heavy traffic even though I know there’s nothing I can do about it. Never before have I felt such a gaping chasm between the two, however, and the small, hyper-rational part of me could only shrink away in awe and incredulity to observe the mad stampede of emotions rampaging through me. I’ve usually been the sort of person for whom rationality and logic ought to prevail in all decision-making, but I suppose for matters of the heart, reason can only follow. I could only use this as an opportunity for some serious self-examination, to try to embrace my emotions and assess and harness them to drive my own behavior.

It just so happened that a former college roommate of mine scheduled a visit during this time, providing me some refuge in the old comforts of a familiar friendship. She’s an amazing, well-grounded, thoughtful, and hilarious person, and seeing her again reminded me of a lot of wonderful qualities inherent in her that I respect and aspire to attain myself. We wandered all over the city, wove in and out of tattoo parlors and dive bars, and took a road trip up to Tahoe, all the while having fun and being ridiculous at a time when having fun and being ridiculous have been the absolute last things on my mind.

She’s the sort of person with whom I can talk about anything and everything, and every conversation with her is a chance to learn something new. Our conversations freewheeled from immigration reform and border-control policies, having children (always a topic of discussion among women, it seems), the morality of suicide, and what it means to be happy to what we think our own deepest flaws are. The ideas that we discuss and bounce off one another never hit a wall where one person simply refuses to change their point of view. Rather, the only barrier we hit is when one of us realizes that she knows too little about the subject for the conversation to be productive any longer.

As much as this has been a time for me to reflect on how I need to work on myself and the next steps I need to take in order to grow and improve, this recent visit my friend paid me also opened my eyes to just how amazing the interconnection of human relationships can be. As I reconsider all of my initial anxieties in college about finding purpose, I realize that the works of Thoreau and Camus that affected me so profoundly emphasized only a solitary search for meaning, making no mention of what reassurance an individual might find in the associations with those around her. I’m now starting to properly appreciate how many wonderful, kind, and generous people there are around me. I treasure the friendships that I have very highly, and I’m making it my mission to live a life where those I call my friends can say that I had a positive impact on them.

This has been a textbook exercise in psychosocial development for me, in which I have been trying to reconcile my own sense of self within the context of my surrounding social environment. Through it all, I think I’ve finally managed to consolidate what carries meaning for me from all of the experiences that I’ve had so far. What’s important to me is continual self-improvement, measured in part by how I foster and cultivate my relationships with those around me. I want to always be exploring more, learning more, and becoming a better person, and I want to find the people in my life that make me a priority and focus on them as well. To that end, I’m setting tentative, longer-term goals for myself and taking the smaller, more immediate steps necessary in order to reach them. For instance, I imagine that somewhere along the path of my software engineering career, I’ll be confronted with the choice of becoming either a manager or a more senior individual contributor. Regardless, I’ll need to work on my leadership skills, so for now, I’m setting immediate goals to improve my speaking, writing, empathy, self-awareness, and overall communications skills.

I am still being constantly surprised by the seemingly limitless bounds of my own arrogance and naiveté. I also know that I’ll never reach a state where I am completely secure about all the decisions I’ve made and the life I lead. However, instead of being dragged down by the weight of my own doubts and insecurities, I’m learning to find peace in the acknowledgement of the perpetuity of my imperfection. Clearly pinpointing all of my flaws will allow me to confront them and work through them, laying out the path I need to follow and allowing me to incorporate an element of deliberation in the everyday choices I make.

I know there is still a great deal of uncertainty in my future. The steps I’m taking today will likely lead me to places that look wildly different from where I expected to be in 10, 20, and 30 years. However, I believe true importance lies not in what the larger narrative of my life ultimately looks like but in being mindful and finding the joy in the instances of human connection in each of the small moments that comprises it. If I die tomorrow, I’ll be at peace believing I made something of the time that I had here.

Though I rather suspect that some thread of existential agony will weave permanently throughout my state of being, this most recent struggle has helped me to uncover which ideals truly matter to me at this moment, and I have found much solace in that.